“It’s do or die. It happens at every level. Once you get to the playoffs, guys get to a new gear, and it’s just a lot more intense and a lot more physical. The speed’s faster. It’s more fun to play in the playoffs, just because of all those factors.”
That is how Notre Dame sophomore goaltender, Mike Johnson, summarized the second season for The Observer (Notre Dame) this week. Who are we to argue?
It’s the second round of the CCHA playoffs, with only one underdog advancing from last week’s first round of play. The top five seeds were idle last week, so Nos. 6, 7 and 8 had to win a series to get here. Interestingly, all four series pair teams that haven’t met since the first half of the 2010-2011 season.
No. 8 Bowling Green vs. No. 1 Michigan
The Falcons (10-25-4) played through Marquette last weekend – no easy feat – shutting out the Wildcats, 2-0, and prevailing 2-1 in double-overtime after dropping the first game, 6-3. It’s a stunning comeback for a team that had just three league and eight overall wins heading into the first round. After allowing four goals in the loss – only two in the first period of that game, in which the Falcons were outshot 21-5 – sophomore goaltender Andrew Hammond (2.50 GAA, .918 SV%) allowed one goal the rest of the weekend, posting a .986 save percentage in the final two games. Jordan Samuels-Thomas (9-12-21) and Ryan Viselli (2-7-9) had the goals in Saturday’s game. Chad Sumsion (5-3-8) and Bryce Williamson (4-2-6) scored Sunday; Williamson’s game-winner came 34 seconds into the second overtime.
BG first-year head coach Chris Bergeron said that the role of the underdog is a good one to take into Yost Arena, telling the Bowling Green Sentinal that it’s “an advantage” for the very young Falcons team “to be going into a situation where people aren’t expecting” BG to win.
Michigan head coach Red Berenson said that he understands the momentum of having won on the road, given what the Wolverines did last season en route to a CCHA tournament championship. “They’ve got more confidence than they’ve had in months,” Berenson told AnnArbor.com this week, adding that the Falcons “can just go for it in the playoffs.”
The Wolverines (23-9-4) captured the regular-season title on the last day of the season by sweeping Northern Michigan, 3-2 and 5-0, in Marquette Feb. 25-26 as Notre Dame faltered at home against Western Michigan. Senior Shawn Hunwick (2.31 GAA, .920) would have registered the shutout had he not relinquished the net to classmate Bryan Hogan (2.09 GAA, .924) in the last six minutes of the game. Hunwick had won the starting job from Hogan after Hogan was hurt in warm-ups before another 5-0 Michigan victory, the Big Chill game Dec. 11 – and Hunwick wanted Hogan’s potential last memory in goal to be that of playing, not of missing out.
The Wolverines are loaded, steady, and well-rounded. Carl Hagelin (17-28-45) leads UM in scoring, was named to the CCHA All-Conference First Team and is a finalist for CCHA Player of the Year. It’s unclear whether the team’s second-leading scorer, Louie Caporusso (9-17-26), will return this weekend after being injured in the series against NMU. David Wohlberg (14-6-20) and Scooter Vaughan (11-8-19) have emerged as players dangerous in any situation.
The Wolverines swept the Falcons in the opening weekend of CCHA play Oct. 8-9. Senior Falcon captain David Solway (5-10-15) is expected to return to play after being out with a concussion since Feb. 18.
Picks: Michigan 3-2, 4-2
No. 7 Lake Superior State vs. No. 2 Notre Dame
The Lakers (12-15-9) made quick work of Ohio State, 4-0 and 3-2, at home in last weekend’s first round, holding the Buckeyes scoreless for the first five periods of play, in large part because of freshman Kevin Kapalka (2.25 GAA, .926 SV%), who stopped 48 shots in the shutout. Kapalka held the Buckeyes scoreless for nearly 103 minutes, the longest shutout streak by a Laker goaltender in CCHA playoff hockey since Blaine Lacher’s three consecutive shutouts in 1993-94. Kapalka, a CCHA All-Rookie Team pick, compiled a save percentage of .974 on the weekend.
In the second half of the season since emerging as the starter, Kapalka is 6-5-5. “Ever since they put (him) in goal…they have been a pretty good hockey team,” Irish head coach Jeff Jackson told the South Bend Tribune this week. “He has definitely made a difference for their team.”
The Lakers are led in scoring by senior Rick Schofield (16-17-33), who had two goals and an assist against the Buckeyes. Domenic Monardo (12-15-27) is the other Laker with double-digit goals.
Heading into the last weekend of regular-season play, the Fighting Irish (21-10-5) were one point ahead of Michigan in league standings. After beating Western Michigan, 3-2, in Kalamazoo, the Irish headed home – only to lose, 2-0, to the Broncos and watch the title transfer to the Wolverines. Afterward, Jackson said that the Irish had time to “shake off” the loss, the first by Notre Dame since a 6-1 routing by Ohio State in Columbus Jan. 21.
“You know,” said Jackson, “maybe it’s a good thing. Hopefully we respond positively. We’ve played some great hockey since our last loss. Maybe tonight wasn’t our best example of how we are playing, but I think we go into the playoffs playing at a very high level.”
The Irish are led in scoring by a dynamic pair of freshmen, T.J. Tynan (19-27-46) and Anders Lee (21-19-40), both unanimous CCHA All-Rookie Team selections. The two were also named to the league’s All-Conference Second Team, and Tynan is a finalist for conference Rookie of the Year. Junior defenseman Sean Lorenz (4-9-13) is a finalist for the league’s Best Defensive Defenseman award. Freshman Jeff Costello (9-4-13) has netted six goals on the Irish power play, as has Lee.
Notre Dame swept Lake Superior in two 4-2 contests Oct. 14-15 in South Bend.
Picks: Notre Dame 2-1, 3-2
No. 6 Alaska vs. No. 3 Miami
The Nanooks (16-15-5) beat Michigan State at home in two overtime games, 3-2 and 4-2, to advance to the second round of the CCHA playoffs. Sophomore Nik Yaremchuk (9-13-22) had the game-winning goal in each contest, 19:40 into overtime Friday and 3:18 into the second OT Saturday.
“It doesn’t happen to a lot of guys, so I feel really special,” Yaremchuk told the Fairbanks News-Miner after Saturday’s contest. “I just happened to do something for the team to help us move on.”
Yaremchuk wasn’t the only guy to help the Nanooks. It was Jarret Granberg’s (9-10-19) goal at 12:45 in the third period of the first game that pulled Alaska even with MSU, and Derek Klassen (5-6-11) and Nanooks’ leading scorer Cody Kunyk (12-17-29) answered two late first-period goals by the Spartans Saturday in the middle of the second to put the Nanooks back into that game. Junior Scott Greenham (2.13 GAA, .919 SV%) had both wins – not surprising, since he’s played every minute in Alaska’s net this season. Greenham was named to the CCHA All-Conference Second Team.
The RedHawks (19-9-6) carry one of the nation’s best unbeaten streaks (6-0-3) into this weekend, having finished the regular season Feb. 25-26 with road wins against Lake Superior State, two games in which Miami outscored the Lakers 12-2. Junior Cody Reichard (2.11 GAA, .910 SV%) had the 8-1 win in which the RedHawks held the Lakers to 21 shots on net. His classmate, Connor Knapp (2.10 GAA, .908 SV%) followed up with a 4-1 decision the next night.
This Miami team is arguably the most talented in the country, top to bottom, and it seems as though the RedHawks are peaking at the right time. Forwards Andy Miele (19-42-61), Carter Camper (17-33-50) and Reilly Smith (24-20-44) – the team’s top three scorers and three of the top scorers in the country – were named to the CCHA All-Conference First Team, and defenseman Chris Wideman (2-18-20) was named to the Second Team. Miele is a finalist for CCHA Player of the Year, Smith is a finalist for the league’s Best Defensive Forward and defenseman Will Weber (1-9-10) is a finalist for the league’s Best Defensive Defenseman.
In spite of all of this talent – and Frozen Four appearances in 2009 and 2010 – the RedHawks know too well the importance of remaining focused in CCHA playoff hockey. In the 2008-09 season, the team skipped the CCHA championship tournament in Detroit because it lost its best-of-three home series against Northern Michigan after capturing the first game, and last season Miami needed three games to get past Ohio State at home before advancing to Joe Louis Arena.
“You learn that you need to come out hard every single game,” Vincent LoVerde told the the Hamilton Journal News this week. “You can’t take a game off in the playoffs,” said LoVerde (1-7-8), a senior in Miami’s veteran defensive corps. “Every game is going to be a grind.”
This series pits two of the nation’s best defenses. Miami (2.24 goals per game) is tied for fourth in the nation with Boston College; Alaska (2.31) is tied for ninth with Michigan. One key difference is offense: the RedHawks average 3.71 goals per game to the Nanooks’ 2.42. Miami’s offense is fifth-best in the country and the RedHawks have the fifth-best scoring margin in the country (1.47).
Miami and Alaska split a series in Oxford Nov. 12-13, with the RedHawks winning 4-0 and the Nanooks rebounding with a 3-2 win.
Picks: Miami 3-2, 3-2
No. 5 Ferris State vs. No. 4 Western Michigan
The Bulldogs (17-14-5) and Broncos (16-10-10) are facing off as equally rested, as they both had a first-round bye last weekend.
Ferris State ended the regular season with a 2-2 tie and 3-1 win on the road against Ohio State Feb. 24-25. Senior Pat Nagle (1.97 GAA, .924 SV%) earned both decisions with 43 saves in the series as the Bulldogs outshout the Buckeyes 80-46 in the set. With the third-best goals-against average in the country and 10th-best save percentage – and over 2,000 minutes in net – Nagle was named to the CCHA All-Conference First Team and is a finalist for Player of the Year. On the road this season, Nagle is 8-6-2 with a 1.70 goals-against average and .933 save percentage.
Senior defenseman Zach Redmond (7-13-20), the Bulldogs’ top scorer, was also named to the CCHA First Team and is a finalist for the league’s Best Offensive Defenseman award but will be absent because of a knee injury he suffered in February.
“It’s tough to see Zach have a knee injury for us this weekend, but Pat brings such a calming influence in net for us,” Daniels told the Grand Rapids Press this week.
Even without Redmond, the Bulldogs have managed to retain the top penalty kill in the country (.892), due in no small way to Nagle and the rest of the FSU defense, which is third in the nation allowing 2.13 goals per game with a largely unsung bunch. Chad Billins (5-11-16), Scott Wietecha (2-8-10) and Brett Wysopal (2-11-13) are solid on the blue line, and the team plays a very defensive style of hockey overall. Forward Mike Embach (8-10-18) has netted five shorthanded goals this season.
Western Michigan is coached in his first year by Jeff Blashill, a former FSU goaltender. The Broncos split their last weekend of regular-season play with the Fighting Irish Feb. 25-26, losing 3-2 at home before spoiling Notre Dame’s bid for a regular-season title with a 2-0 shutout win in South Bend. The story in the second half for the Broncos has been the remarkable play of senior Jerry Kuhn (2.28 GAA, .913 SV%), who had 51 saves in two games against ND, 35 in the shutout.
Ian Slater (8-8-16) had the game-winning goal against the Irish and Max Campbell (16-13-29), WMU’s lead scorer, had both goals in the loss and an assist on Trevor Ellias’ (3-12-15) goal in the shutout. The Broncos’ second-leading scorer, Chase Balisy (12-17-29) was named to the CCHA All-Rookie Team.
The Bulldogs are a veteran-heavy team with more CCHA playoff experience than the Broncos have enjoyed, but that doesn’t matter at this time of year, said Bronco senior defenseman Mike Levendusky (2-2-4), who told the Kalamazoo Gazette this week that come playoff time, there are “no freshman players anymore.”
“At this point, everyone has played and knows what the league is like,” Levendusky said. “Everyone has the mentality that it’s do or die.”
These teams last met Nov. 19-20, with FSU winning 3-1 followed by a 2-2 tie.
Picks: FSU 3-2, WMU 2-1, FSU 2-1
As this is a picks blog, here’s my picks history.
Last week: 3-4 (.429)
2010-11 to date: 111-72-26 (.593)
Yes, I feel shame. Yes, there are ways to reach me beside the comments section at the end of the blog: firstname.lastname@example.org and @paulacweston if you’re “on the Twitter,” as my mother likes to say.